Federer to Stuttgart final – and back to No. 1

On a day when three top players returning from long absences played quality tennis on the lawns of Stuttgart, Roger Federer came out a double winner.

Not only did he come out on top in his semifinal match against Nick Kyrgios, he also guaranteed a return to the top of the rankings on Monday.

Federer got past Nick Kyrgios 6-7 (2), 6-2, 7-6 (5) in Saturday’s second semifinal.

“I’m very happy, very relieved, I thought it was the tough match I expected. We’ve played so many breakers already I’ve stopped counting,” Federer said during his on-court interview. “I lost the last couple of matches with match points so (I thought) maybe it’s going to happen again.”

On Sunday, he will play former world No. 3 and Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic.

Raonic defeated No. 2 seed Lucas Pouille 6-4, 7-6 (3) in the first semifinal.

He’s No. 1

The victory ensured that Federer will return to the No. 1 ranking when the new list comes out on Monday.

A match played in good spirits, with Kyrgios’s respect for Federer showing in everything he did. (TennisTV)

But, if he wants to stay at the top of the heap for Wimbledon, he will have to win the tournament in Halle, Germany next week. Otherwise, Rafael Nadal will take it back.

(Federer will still be the No. 1 seed, because of the grass-court seeding formula used for the men).

“It was close. Could have gone either way, naturally. I’m happy I got it and got back to world No. 1 next Monday, so it’s very exciting. And I got another final, so it’s great news,” Federer said.

This is Federer’s first tournament since Miami in late March, where he lost to Thanasi Kokkinakis in the first round, in a third-set tiebreak. In his previous match, he had lost to Juan Martin del Potro in the Indian Wells final – in a third-set tiebreak.

For Kyrgios, Stuttgart was a return to singles for the first time since the Houston clay-court event in early April.

He played the doubles in Lyon, on clay, the week before the French Open and won it with his friend Jack Sock. He also played doubles at the Surbiton Challenger last week, losing in the first round.

Raonic back and looking for a title

For Raonic, Stuttgart is a return after he missed Rome and the French Open with a knee issue that began during the 2017 offseason. He spent six weeks unable to train full out, or even serve. And that compromised the beginning of his 2018 season.

His fitness went up several notches during the American hard-court swing through Indian Wells and Miami. He reached the semis in the desert and the quarters in Florida, losing to del Potro on both occasions.

But after giving a walkover to Marin Cilic in the third round in Monte Carlo, and losing to young countryman Denis Shapovalov in the same round in Madrid, the 27-year-old crossed off the clay-court season and began to prepare for the grass.

The Stuttgart final is his first since Istanbul a year ago, on clay.

He will be looking for his first title in 2 1/2 years – since Brisbane to start the 2016 season.

There, he defeated Federer in the final.

“Really excited to play Milos. He’s in great shape again. it’s nice for him. And I hope we can play another great match.”

Federer is 10-3 against Raonic. He lost to him in five sets in the 2016 Wimbledon semifinals, and defeated him in straight sets in the 2017 quarterfinals.

(Screenshots from TennisTV)

Roger Federer is back, and in the news

After two and a half months away from the match court, Roger Federer is back.

He’ll hit the grass in Stuttgart for his first match on Wednesday, against veteran lefty Mischa Zverev, a familiar opponent on grass.

Of the five times they’ve met (Federer has yet to lose a set), three have been on grass. Two of them came a year ago, in Halle and in the third round at Wimbledon.

But before the 36-year-old even serves, he has already made plenty of news.

The most amusing part was the officially-scheduled Federer practice on Sunday on the centre court in Stuttgart.

A telling sign of just exactly how much a player of Federer’s pedigree means to a 250-level tournament like Stuttgart was that his hit was announced for 5 p.m. on the official order of play.

That was – of course – right in the middle of the French Open in Paris between Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem.

Federer seemed rather in good spirits for the practice with Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber.

But the focus was partly on what Federer was wearing.

The answer: Nike, of course. At least for now.

Rumours of a move to Uniqlo

Fact: Federer’s 10-year deal with Nike expired March 1.

And, as with any contract renewal negotiation, discussions would have begun long before that expiry date.

But there is no deal yet.

And, in the interim, a trial balloon was floated that the Japanese company Uniqlo has weighed in with a massive offer.

It appears that Vince Martucci at Sportsenators.it was the first in the non-Asian markets to put this out there.

Uniqlo, which sponsors Japanese superstar Kei Nishikori (and just re-upped with him in a $50 million deal that takes both sides through the market-crucial Tokyo Olympics in 2020), freed up some cash after Novak Djokovic went to Lacoste.

But … $30 million US a year, for 10 years? That would take it well beyond Federer’s playing days, and well into his retirement. Well, one would assume, anyway.

Federer acknowledged that the Nike deal (which was a reported $100 million for 10 years, and probably undervalued in the market by this point, given Federer’s resurgence) had expired, and that he’d heard the rumours.

“These rumors are known to me. (Not a) rumor is that my Nike contract expired in March. There are negotiations going on, there’s nothing more to say. You are certainly the first to know when something is going in that direction,” Federer said during a press conference in Stuttgart Monday.

A lot of outlets are reporting this as a done deal. It’s unlikely that’s true. But the gloves are off.

Looking for lifetime deal?

It’s hard to imagine that Team Federer would want to leave Nike. It’s an association that has been ongoing since 1994. And Federer’s RF Nike logo is iconic.

And it’s hard to imagine that Nike would want to leave Federer. The Swiss star is, by a wide margin, the player who moves the most tennis merchandise for them – for any tennis manufacturer, actually.

But at what price?

That obviously is the rub.

If it has taken this long to come to an agreement, there are two factors to be looked at. The first is the actual dollars. The second is the length of the agreement, with Federer’s playing days counting down.

From the Team Federer perspective, you could speculate realistically that they’re looking for a lifetime deal. He has become, through the years, a sporting icon who transcends tennis.

But the Nike business revolves around the shoe.

Basketball superstar LeBron James signed a lifetime deal with the company in 2015. He’s 33..

Soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who also is 33, signed a lifetime deal of his own in November, 2016.

Nike icon Michael Jordan hangs with Federer’s wife Mirka at the 2014 US Open.

Michael Jordan, who has been retired 15 years, is estimated to have earned $473 million from his Nike association since 1993. And only the first 10 years of that came while he was an active player.

Federer’s name recognition is up there with those athletes, on some levels. But the sport he plays does not bring Nike nearly the same level of revenue. And so a “lifetime” deal wouldn’t come with nearly the same number of dollars.

The Agassi comparison

In July, 2005, lifelong Nike wearer Andre Agassi switched to adidas, which had long sponsored his wife, Steffi Graf.

For a long period of time, the American was as identified with the “swoosh” as Federer is now. Maybe even more – on the North American scene, especially. And the association revolutionized the marketing of tennis.

It seemed unthinkable at the time that he would leave. But Agassi spun it well; the deal with adidas had huge philanthropic element, a financial commitment to his foundation.

But in 2013, Agassi returned to Nike, emphasizing that the association would help promote the company’s “Designed to Move” campaign.

JuJu

Money, or image?

Nike is Nike, the standard-bearer for sports merchandise.

Will Federer leave Nike and take the Uniqlo money? It feels like there are still a few chapters to be written in this story.

Uniqlo, which is rapidly expanding (although doesn’t yet have stores in Federer’s homeland), is far more of a sportswear company than a tennis concern.

Its clothes are reasonably priced and fairly bland, sort of on par with The Gap and Old Navy in the U.S.

The company has repeatedly tried to crack the American market, but seems to not yet have found the winning formula to compete with the other chain stores in its market segment.

Would Federer be a difference-maker worldwide? Certainly they seem to think so, especially if Federer plays on and competes in the 2020 Olympics on Uniqlo’s home turf.

But what we really don’t know is how legitimate those alleged numbers are.

Make no mistake, the news of this sudden  “competitor” for Federer’s allegiance was strategically leaked.

And those numbers are perhaps an inadvertent clue into what Team Federer believes its man is worth to Nike.

Perhaps, with negotiations not progressing after all these months, it was time to try to put pressure on Nike. The rumours are undoubtedly a move to put Federer in what’s always the best negotiation position: creating a bidding war and letting Nike know that what they’ve come up with so far isn’t nearly enough. And that if they don’t up the ante, someone else is ready to take it on.

Public-relations repercussions

The delicate balance here is the potential harm it could do to Federer’s “peRFect” image.

Forbes’ estimate of Federer’s career earnings (and this was a few years ago) came in at about $600 million.

So – and this is an understatement – the Swiss star has earned more than he and generations of his descendants could ever possibly spend.

Federer has a number of high-profile sponsorship deals, most recently a $40 million contract with the pasta-maker Barilla. The company’s Federer commercials regularly ran on French television during the French Open, despite his absence.

And early in the event, he was even in town for a Moët champagne event celebrating his 20 years on tour. A special bottle priced at $19,998 was announced, with the profits going to his foundation.

The Nike-Federer relationship is firmly anchored. And a lot fans can’t imagine one without the other.

If it’s perceived that Federer left merely because of big stacks of money, the average fan making a working salary will resent it.

So if it happens, that’s going to require some deft public relations.

There’s always a “respect” component to these things – a “scoreboard” where success is measured not so much by the actual dollars (especially when the athlete concerned is beyond worrying about the dollars). It’s about “did he get what he’s worth, relative to other athletes at his level?”

In the end, it’s a chase for one dollar more than the other guy got. That means a “win”.

The 2018 season was always going to be a fascinating one, from this perspective. Because Rafael Nadal’s long-term deal with Nike also is expiring this year.

So what happens with Federer is something Team Nadal no doubt will keep a close eye on.

But back to tennis …

ATP Tour Rankings – May 14, 2018

While Roger Federer is living the life of Riley in Dubai, preparing for the grass-court season as the rest of the Tour toils on the dirt, he got a rankings gift on Monday.

The 36-year-old is back in the No. 1 spot.

It was always likely to happen during the clay-court season, as rival Rafael Nadal had such a high standard to defend from a year ago.

And so when Nadal was beaten by Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals of Madrid – after winning the tournament in 2017 – the deed was done.

Federer is now 720 points ahead.

Nadal, the top seed in Rome, was a quarterfinalist there last year, out of gas after Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid. 

He’s dropping 180 points. To get the No. 1 spot back, he would have to win Rome and earn those 1,000 points. He would then squeeze past Federer and back into the No. 1 spot in the rankings by 100 points going into Paris.

ON THE UPSWING

rankingsKevin Anderson (RSA): No. 8 ———-> No. 7 (Career high for the 31-year-old transplanted South African).

Lucas Pouille (FRA): No. 18———-> No. 16 (The French No. 1 has hardly won a match for awhile, but he moves up two because of the struggles of Djokovic and Berdych).

Kyle Edmund (GBR): No. 22 ———-> No. 19 (The British No. 1 joins the top 20 after his Madrid semifinal).

Denis Shapovalov (CAN): No. 43———> No. 29 (Welcome to the top 30, and a seeded spot in Paris).

Steve Johnson (USA): No. 55 ———-> No. 48 (Back into the top 50 without doing a single thing).

John Millman (AUS): No. 70———-> No. 58 (The unsung Aussie is at a career high after beating more highly-touted countryman Bernard Tomic in the Aix-en-Provence final).

Dusan Lajovic (SRB): No. 95 ———-> No. 66 (The 27-year-old Serb is close to a career high reached 3 1/2 years ago, after going from the qualifying to the quarters in Madrid and beating the likes of Richard Gasquet and Juan Martin del Potro along the way).

Vasek Pospisil (CAN): No. 88 ———> No. 78 (The Canadian is holding his own, working for points on the Asian Challenger circuit).

Bernard Tomic (AUS): No. 243 ———-> No. 191 (Has the resurrection begun? Tomic reaches the Aix-en-Provence Challenger final).

Yoshihito Nishioka (JPN): No. 362——-> No. 262 (From the qualifying to the title at the Gimcheon Challenger, the 22-year-old lefty was ranked No. 58 a year ago before tearing his ACL and is on the comeback trail).

 

ON THE DOWNSWING

rankingsNovak Djokovic (SRB): No. 12 ———-> No. 18 (The drop is going to hurt Djokovic’s seeding in Paris, although if he can raise his level somewhere close to its best, that won’t matter).

Kei Nishikori (JPN): No. 20 ———-> No. 24

Borna Coric (CRO): No. 35———-> No. 40

Andy Murray (GBR): No. 39———-> No. 45 (When’s he coming back? Still a question mark).

Frances Tiafoe (USA): No. 56 ———-> No. 63

Pablo Cuevas (URU): No. 57 ———-> No. 71 (The 32-year-old was a semifinalist in Madrid a  year ago).

Jeremy Chardy (FRA): No. 74———> No. 89

Pierre-Hugues Herbert (FRA): No. 76 ———-> No. 90

Ernesto Escobedo (USA): No. 151 ———-> No. 162

Reilly Opelka (USA): No. 169 ———-> No. 206

Thomaz Bellucci (BRA): No. 221 ———> No. 249

For the full ATP Tour rankings picture, including the race to London, click here).

Federer upset by Kokkinakis in Miami opener

MIAMI, Fla. – Winning Indian Wells and Miami back to back, as Roger Federer did a year ago in his return from a six-month absence, was always going to be a challenging proposition to repeat.

But between that, and being out of the Miami Open in his first match, there’s a chasm few could have predicted would open up.

But Federer is out in the second round, defeated 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4) by Australian qualifier Thanasi Kokkinakis.

In the process, Federer also lost the No. 1 spot in the rankings.

Rafael Nadal, who has played just one tournament this year because of injury but had fewer points to defend as the 2017 Miami finalist rather than champion, will take it back April 2.

Whether he can hold onto it, with all the points he must defend during the clay-court season, is to be determined.

“I deserve it after this match. That’s how I feel. Just so bad,” said Federer, who said he spent the entire match searching for solutions, and never really finding them. Still, he was just a few points away from making a great escape.

“I feel like I wasn’t feeling good. The ball, I wasn’t feeling. With my movement, things weren’t absolutely working. I felt like the third (set) could be a tricky one, of course. I feel like every time I had chances, something bad happened for me, wrong decision making by me, good decision making by him. Who knows what happened. It just felt like I could be paying the price for opportunities missed,” Federer said.

At No. 175, Kokkinakis is the lowest-ranked player to defeat a sitting No. 1 since Spanish lefty Francisco Clavet (No. 178) defeat Lleyton Hewitt at this same tournament 15 years ago.

Kokkinakis a promising teen

As a teenager, the 21-year-old was in the same conversation as other up-and-comers including his friend and countryman Nick Kyrgios, Alexander Zverev and Borna Coric. So for him, this was a breakthrough victory as he makes his way back after numerous injuries the last two years.

The biggest one was the shoulder surgery he had in Dec. 2015. He missed nine months. But it’s a surgery that many tennis players don’t fully come back from, especially on the serve. It was going to take more time than that to return to full strength again.

“At the start I was rushing a little bit. Obviously he puts a lot of pressure on you, doesn’t really play like many players. Obviously he’s a lot better than a lot of players. But game style-wise, he’s a lot different. Took a little bit of time to adjust,” Kokkinakis said. “Then when the game kind of slowed down to me, I started being able to execute and do what I needed to. I thought I was in control of more baseline rallies, for sure.”

Funnily enough, the numbers don’t really bear out their assessments. in the medium-range rallies (five to nine shots), Federer won 31-of-45.

Kokkinakis needed a wild card just to get into the qualifying here. He defeated No. 16 seed Thiago Monteiro of Brazil and No. 8 seed Taro Daniel (who defeated Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells) to make the main draw. In the first round of the main draw, he easily rolled past fellow qualifier Calvin Hemery.

This was other level, compared to those wins.

Federer is passed at the net by Thanasi Kokkinakis during his three-set loss to the young Aussie Saturday.

As with any upset where the rankings disparity is so great, it took some great play from the Aussie, and some poorer play from the No. 1 to even the playing field.

“I feel like it already started beginning of the second set, when I had break points first game, and he almost wanted to give me that game, and I couldn’t take it. … From that moment on, I played maybe a bad 10 minutes, which cost me the second set, maybe the match,” Federer said. “Look, it’s disappointing. Don’t know why I could never get to any level that I was happy with today. Sometimes you have these matches. Sometimes you find a way through. I just couldn’t get it done today.”

Kokkinakis felt the shifts in Federer tactics as he pushed back after the first set.

“He puts a lot of pressure on you with the way he plays. He shrinks the court, so it’s tough. When the game slowed down a little bit, I started controlling the points with my forehand. I think he felt it, too, that I was winning a lot of the baseline rallies. He started to come into net a lot,” Kokkinakis said. “The third set, I was holding on a lot of moments, tight moments, where he was in control of the third set. Played big when it mattered. I thought I played a really solid mental tiebreak, and, yeah, got it done.

“I said, If he beats me by hitting winners, too good. But he didn’t,” he added.

These are the types of matches an older player will tend to have more often as he ages. But Federer has had surprisingly few of them in the 15 months since he returned to action. 

Dubai guest beats the master

And he lost to one of his young protégés, in a manner of speaking – one of the young up-and-comers he has invited to Dubai to train with him in the off-season.

(The most recent of those was 17-year-old Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime).

Those coveted invitations can, in some cases, be intimidating for the young prospects. In this case, Kokkinakis took everything he could from them and came out realizing that Federer was still only human.

Federer searched for solutions the entire match, but says nothing felt right on the day.

“He’s been real supportive. Anything he thinks in my game, how it should operate, I’ve been all ears listening to him. To share the court, have such a big win on a big court against the world No. 1, it’s pretty crazy. Pretty happy about it,” Kokkinakis said. “Yeah, I mean, everyone is human. He just plays tennis a lot better than a lot of people.” 

For Federer, a longer-than-expected break looms.

With the big red line struck through the clay-court season, he wouldn’t be expected to return until Stuttgart, the grass-court tuneup for Wimbledon that is played the week of June 11.

That’s more than two and a half months away.

“I’m a positive thinker. I feel like every match is an another opportunity. Especially after losing one, clearly I’m down right now. I’m disappointed. I’m frustrated a little bit that I couldn’t find a way. It’s unfortunate how it goes,” Federer said.

“Yeah, it’s pretty simple at the end of the day. You go back to the practice court or go on vacation, you really take a break, get away from it all. When you come back to the practice court to work, whatever it is, you do it at 100 per cent.”

Kokkinakis will play No. 31 seed Fernando Verdasco in the third round. He’ll be facing him, as he did Federer, for the first time.

He will be inside the top 150 with what he has done so far in Miami, inside the top 130 if he can beat the veteran Spanish lefty.

The entry deadline for the main draw at the French Open is in just over three weeks. Kokkinakis would need to win two more matches to be on the bubble to get straight in to a Grand Slam on his own ranking.

Since the last time that happened, at the 2015 US Open, he has either been absent or needed a wild card to play. 

Roger Federer to skip the clay-court season again

MIAMI, Fla. – Roger Federer lost his opening match in Miami Saturday to qualifier Thanasi Kokkinakis. So there will be no Sunshine Double.

(But more on that here).

The bigger-picture news from the No. 1 (for now) is that once again, he has decided to pass on the entire clay-court season, which begins in two weeks in Monte Carlo and runs through the French Open.

Federer had said he would decide after Miami whether or not he would play on the terre battue.

But the 36-year-old Swiss announced after the 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4) defeat to Kokkinakis Saturday that the decision had already been made.

It was short and sweet. He has decided not to play. 

Last year, Federer had toyed with the notion of skipping all the warmup events and playing the main event, at Roland Garros.

Ultimately, he decided not to play anything. 

This year, he has already decided. He won’t play the French Open, either.

Fuzzy Federer is no more (video)

MIAMI, Fla. – You knew, once the BNP Paribas Open was over, that Fuzzy Federer would give way to corporate Federer.

After all, there was a day of public appearances in Chicago to promote the second edition of the Laver Cup.

And so it was. But the Indian Wells runner-up wasted no time getting to Miami for the second leg of the Sunshine Double.

Tuesday afternoon, he was on the stadium court with one of his regular recent practice partners, Diego Schwartzman of Argentina.

Without a doubt, there were more fans inside the stadium watching him practice than were watching all of the qualifying and first-round main-draw women’s matches on all the other courts put together.

Here’s what it looked like.

(Trivia corner: that’s the same T-shirt Federer wore for his first practice at Indian Wells two weeks ago. That time, he hit with Kyle Edmund. The shorts looked a little darker, though. End of trivia)

Lightning trip for Laver Cup

Thanks to the magic of Net Jets, Federer and Rod Laver and company, including Nick Kyrgios, flew to Chicago very early Monday morning and did a lot of promotion for the upcoming (in six months) second edition of the Laver Cup.

(Looks like they have some comfy sleepers on that jet, because Federer looks fresh. Also – Mirka remembered to pack his ski vest).

It seems John McEnroe will be the captain of the “World” team again. Because he ceremonially selected Nick Kyrgios as the first player on the squad for the 2018 edition.

They had deep-dish pizza, the iconic Chicago treat.

They met fans. And they signed autographs and posed for selfies.

They even met Bastian Schweinsteiger, the Chicago MLS soccer star (and, as it happens, the husband of Ana Ivanovic. And also – as of a few days ago, a new father).

They were only there a few hours, but it looks like they got a lot done.

Series tickets go on sale on Friday, at 10 a.m. CDT.

Federer vs. del Potro in Indian Wells final

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – With all the absences, with Novak Djokovic going out early, and with so many high seeds gone too soon, the BNP Paribas Open men’s singles final turned out all right after all.

No. 1 seed Roger Federer and No. 6 seed Juan Martin del Potro, two extremely popular players both on form this season, will vie for the trophy Sunday.

After that, it’s possible one of both of them will finally shave.

The two fuzzy finalists took different paths to the final match Saturday as Federer grinded out a win, and del Potro cruised on a way the conditions made things challenging.

Federer looked like a man who pressed the snooze button too many times until halfway through his match against 21-year-old Borna Coric of Croatia.

Most often, television and the tournaments themselves demand the world No. 1 get an spotlight match in the evening session. At worst, he tends to play late afternoon. So the 11 a.m. start may have felt as foreign to him as a middle-of-the-night wakeup call for a commuter flight.

The ATP Tour said that Federer had had just two 11 a.m. starts prior to this in his career: in 2006 here in the desert, and in 2004 at the tournament in Gstaad, Switzerland.

“Pasta at 9:15. It was yummy,” Federer quipped during is post-match interview for ESPN.

Tough conditions, tough match

  Raonic never found a groove against del Potro Saturday. And his lack of effectiveness on serve was a bit of a shocker.

The No. 1 looked out of sorts, perhaps a little stiff and sore, too (the cold, windy weather is not a friend to any 36-year-old professional athlete). And before he knew it he was down a set an a break to Coric, the 49th-ranked Croat who pulled off a third-set tiebreak win over No. 7 seed Kevin Anderson in the previous round.

But Federer woke up. He adjusted his targets to cut down the errors he was making in the wind. And Coric woke up, too – only in a different way. Faced with the prospect of upsetting the world No. 1, he flinched just enough, strayed from a successful game plan just enough, to allow Federer to pull out a 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 victory.

Better lucky than good – but both help

Federer admitted he had some luck. He also didn’t decide, when he was in big trouble, that perhaps it just wasn’t going to be his day and ride out the inevitable.

“I think when you are confident and maybe also experienced and you have that combination, there’s no real need to panic, you know, because you can assess the situation quite easily,” Federer said. “You’re understanding that the opponent is playing better. It’s breezy. It’s hard to play offense. And when I was playing offense he was defending well. In the neutral rally balls, maybe I was missing a bit too many times.

“I think Borna played a great match. He was very steady. I can see why he caused a lot of problems to a lot of players, and he’s only going to improve from here,” Federer added. “Look, I should have lost the match. I was down twice a break in the third, I was down a break in the second. So, yeah, no doubt about it, this was definitely the toughest match, maybe the toughest match (this season).”

Despite appearances – at least early on – Federer said he was fine, physically. He said he was just caught off-guard by Coric’s game, the way he absorbed power so well and how he neutralized his offensive game combined with what Federer termed a recent “recalibration” of his game style to become a little more offensive-minded.

“He won because he’s Roger Federer”

Coric thought he had it, at some moments.

The Croat said the quick start was a combination of himself playing well, and Federer not playing well.

“But he stayed in the match and he pushed me. He basically, you know, he said to me, ‘Okay, you need to win the match. I’m not going to give the match to you.’ Many other players, especially because I was playing very good and I was not missing, many other players would just give the match away, you know, and he didn’t do it,” Coric said.

 He won also because he’s Roger Federer, and because he plays great. … He played, I think, tactically very, very good, very smart in those very important points, you know, which I was a little bit surprised.”

Undefeated in 2018

Federer is now 17-0 to start the season – the best start of his career. Del Potro is not far behind him at 16-3. And despite some back woes earlier in the tournament, the Argentine looked in perfect form Saturday and had little trouble with Raonic.

The Canadian’s lack of match play this season – and the Argentine’s abundance of it – contributed to del Potro having more confidence in being aggressive in the challenging conditions. Raonic never found his rhythm.

“I was sort of trying to find a groove. Especially when you sort of haven’t played for a while, you already are overthinking a lot of things. And then, with the wind, you’re not sure. You don’t have just that calm and ease about going through things and figuring things out on the fly,” said Raonic, whose ranking will rise from No. 38 to No. 25 with his week in the desert.

“It was surprising to see him serving not too hard, and I broke his serve very quick in both sets. That give me the control of the match,” del Potro said. ” I play a smart game, because the conditions were tough to play, but I did everything good. And I served well. I took all my chances. It was an easier match than what I expect before.”

25th meeting between Federer and del Potro

Federer is 18-6 against del Potro during their careers.

But despite that rather lopsided head-to-head, they have had some fascinating tussles. Del Potro has defeated Federer at some of the tournaments that mean the most to him. He won back-to-back three-setters in the finals of the Basel event (Federer’s hometown tournament) in 2012 and 2013. And he has beaten Federer twice at the US Open, including last year.

“We both know what the other is trying to do, and we try to stop the other person from doing it. But it’s hard when me or him is in full flight. It’s basically an arm wrestle the whole time, and I think we enjoy that,” Federer said.

Federer and Djokovic, side by side (video)

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – The BNP Paribas Open was the first tournament to understand and exploit the fact that non-diehard tennis fans want to watch the stars, above all else.

Those fans make up the bulk of the tickets sold at any big tournament. If only the diehards attended, you wouldn’t see these types of crowds. That’s why this event and so many others work hard to turn the tennis event into an overall “experience.”

Many of those casual fans – and, of course, the fans of particular players – would rather watch the big guns practice than take in a spellbinding three-setter between two players they don’t know as well.

The players also are in a more relaxed frame of mind, and more willing to engage with those watching on.

Not only are the Indian Wells stands set up around the practice courts for that purpose (a model copied by many other events now, including the US Open), the bonus is that best male players will typically hit on the two front practice courts.

side

(Maria Sharapova, Venus and Serena Williams almost always opt for Practice Court 9. That court is all the way in the corner of the complex, and in a spot where the fans are roped off one practice court away. Sometimes, they will refuse the media access, as well – depending on their mood).

A Friday double delight

On Friday, on Practice Courts 1 and 2, there was double trouble.

First Novak Djokovic came out with Lucas Pouille.

Then, half an hour later, Roger Federer came out with Diego Schwartzman.

(As it happens, because of Saturday night’s rainout, Djokovic and Federer were scheduled back to back on Sunday, as they make their 2018 Indian Wells debuts. Djokovic went down to Japan’s Taro Daniel. And then Federer took the court to complete his match against Federico Delbonis of Argentina).

Here’s what it looks like when two superstars are side-by-side.

Standing-room only – and even then

The stands were packed well in in advance.

And you can see by the video that they were jammed into every possible corner and peering over fences everywhere, some on their tippy-toes.

There were both kinds of fans. Djokovic has his crew. And there were also Federer fans in the crowd who arrived early to get a hard-to-snag seat.

It’s not something you get to see often. And it’s no wonder that so many took a pass on the actual match action for a few hours to watch it.

In the absence of Rafael Nadal, these two are it as far as the rock stars of the men’s circuit at this year’s BNP Paribas Open (with no offense intended to the rest of the players in the draw).

Needless to say, the two were much in demand from autograph seekers after their practice.

We’ll have more video on that later today.

With Djokovic already eliminated, there won’t be any more such opportunities this year.

Video: Federer hits the court

INDIAN WELLS, Calif – Roger Federer was in San Jose, Calif. Monday night at his charity exhibition.

Less than 24 hours later, the 36-year-old was on court at the BNP Paribas Open for the first hit of what he hopes will be a successful title defense.

Federer hit with Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund. And there were, you know, some people on hand to watch.

Definitely standing-room only, with the requisite “You’re No. 1” and “Roger, it’s my birthday” shoutouts.

Federer rarely puts on a T-shirt without a purpose. And in this case, he was wearing one from the Nike Gyakusou collection.

It’s a running collection, not a tennis collection that “flawlessly fuses asymmetrical aesthetics with Nike’s latest running innovations — including Nike Dri-FIT and Nike AeroReact. Traditional colors and whimsical sublimation patterns accentuate a performance collection complete with a range of reflective graphics, diverse storage solutions.”

That’s quite a thing.

No. 1 sights and sounds

Here’s what it looked and sounded like.

As Federer was hitting tennis balls, the draw was being made for the men’s singles.

And for the first time since 2010, he found his name at the top of the drawsheet.

(Not to jinx him, but the last time Federer played this tournament as the No. 1, he lost his second match – third round – in a third-set tiebreak to then-No. 33 Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus).

Good draw

After a first-round bye, Federer will play the winner of Ryan Harrison vs. Federico Delbonis. And then, perhaps No. 25 seed Filip Krajinovic of Serbia.

He got the “worst” of the non top-four seeds in a potential quarterfinal. But that No. 5 seed happens to be Dominic Thiem of Austria.

Thiem is less of a threat on the hard courts. But the Indian Wells courts are so darn slow that they may help him. Thiem was a quarterfinalist a year ago, losing in a third-set tiebreak to Stan Wawrinka.

He has No. 3 seed Grigor Dimitrov in his half, while No. 2 Marin Cilic and No. 4 Alexander Zverev are in the other half.

Also in the other half – No. 10 seed Novak Djokovic and No. 6 seed Juan Martin del Potro.

Federer looks in good shape from that perspective. But he does have to reach the semifinals to remain No. 1, given he’s defending 1,000 points from a year ago.

If he doesn’t, Rafael Nadal will overtake the top spot without even playing the event.

On Monday, Federer is No. 1 again

The cardboard-looking concoction with the word “oldest” on it crafted to mark the occasion probably won’t make Roger Federer’s jet back to Switzerland.

But whether he’s first, last, oldest, youngest, tallest, best-coiffed or Swissest, the 36-year-old will once again be the No. 1 ranked player on the ATP Tour when the new rankings are released on Monday.

Federer took a last-minute wild card into the ATP 500 Rotterdam event, and needed to win three matches and reach the semifinals to grab that top spot again.

He did it Friday night, against a very under-the-weather-looking Robin Haase.

The 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 victory guaranteed the numbers will add up. And Federer will return to the top spot for the first time since early November, 2012.

A number of No. 1 records

Federer is back at the top of the game – at least for moment – for the first time in five years and 106 days.

That shatters the ATP record for longest gap, held by Andre Agassi since 1999. 

The gap of 14 years and 17 days since the first time Federer became No. 1 is also a record, unlikely to ever be touched (although never say never).

And he is now by far the oldest man ever on the ATP Tour to be No. 1, surpassing Agassi’s “oldest” record by more than three years.

Nike was already prepared. Federer’s sponsors are pretty good at having all this stuff ready – just in case.

The three phases of No. 1

The Rotterdam event, with tournament director Richard Krajicek out on court, had a ceremony all prepared

But Haase looked like he might spoil the show early on.

Haase was definitely struggling, but gamely carried to make sure the moment wasn’t anticlimactic for his friend Federer (TennisTV)

Surely Federer had some nerves. But Haase, who is playing good tennis right now and also is the highest-ranked male player in the host country, didn’t show up to hand the crown to his Swiss friend. And it was the one place this matchup wasn’t going to have the crowd overwhelmingly in Federer’s favor.

Federer later acknowledged that he knew Haase had not been feeling well all week. And by the end, the Dutchman wasn’t even sitting down on a changeover which, most tennis players will concur, usually means your back is killing you.

Haase also, at one point, appeared to vomit in a nearby garbage can grabbed for the occasion.

Had he not played at all, that would have been … well, a little anticlimactic and awkward.

Haase, who is friendly with Federer, also stayed for the entire ceremony. It wasn’t his first rodeo with Swiss players and occasions.

“Ironically, (Haase) has to go through another ceremony with another Swiss guy. Six months ago in Basel it was Marco (Chiudinelli) he took on court doing the round of honours, and how you have to watch this,” Federer said. “I’m sorry you have to do all these things.”

Federer tribute at the ready

The tribute began with Krajicek’s rambling speech about Federer’s fabulousness, and a video testimonial to the same fabulousness.

“Thank you for being the great guy that you are – he really is an unbelievable guy. And thanks for being an amazing ambassador for the sport we all love,” Kracijek said.

(Lest anyone think Federer has a healthy ego, well … it’s probably difficult not to develop one when nearly everyone you meet, every single day, is telling you how fabulous you are).

Federer was emotional, but calm. He pointed out the three different phases of being No. 1, when you’re Roger Federer. They are phases not too many mortals can even contemplate and, indeed, as recently as six months ago Federer likely was not contemplating that it could happen again.

“Reaching No. 1 is one of, if not the ultimate achievement in our sport. Sometimes in the beginning you just all of a sudden get there, just because you’re playing so well. Later, you sometimes try to fight it back, you wrestle it back from somebody else who deserved to be there,” Federer said.

“And when you’re older, you feel you have to put in maybe sometimes double the work in. So this one maybe means the most to me throughout my career. Getting to No. 1 and enjoying it at 36, almost 37 years old is an absolutely dream come true. and I can’t believe it.”

Going for title No. 97

Meanwhile, the tournament is not over. 

Federer is in the semifinals, and will meet lucky loser Andreas Seppi. He is 13-1 against the Italian, the only loss coming at the 2015 Australian Open.

He should be all right, unless he “parties like a rock star” Friday night. He’ll also get the benefit of another night match, under the roof as well (!!!!). 

If Federer wins that, he would face the winner of a match between David Goffin of Belgium (6-1, with the Belgian winning the last one, in the semifinals of the ATP Tour Finals in London last November) and Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria (6-0).

And on Monday, the milestone will be official.

(All screenshots from TennisTV.com)